Friday, March 23, 2012

Half of the Elite Eight Set

Aside from the first game, which saw Syracuse squeak by Wisconsin when the Badgers couldn't get a good shot off on their final possession, Thursday's action was pretty boring: Louisville's Gorgui Dieng controlled the interior with seven blocked shots as the Cardinals stymied Michigan State; Ohio State lost its concentration and a 12-point halftime lead, but regrouped to beat Cincy by 15; and freshman Bradley Beal led Florida past Marquette in a high-intensity yet sloppy game that was pretty similar to Marquette's second-round win over Murray State.

The Syracuse-Wisconsin game was a gem, though.

I thought Wisconsin did a really nice job of attacking the Syracuse zone in the first half by getting the ball to the middle and then kicking it out to shooters. Foul trouble to Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz, however, allowed the Orange to go one of those eight- or ten-point spurts that make them so dangerous this year, right before halftime.

The second half was more of the same, with Wisconsin continuing to heat up from the perimeter. At one point, the Badgers hit six consecutive threes. Paradoxically, though, I thought that streak may have been their downfall; they got so hot, they weren't executing their offense as well. They settled on a few possessions, and resorted to setting ballscreens at the top of the zone instead of passing it crisply into the heart of the lane and then back out. And, of course, they were bound to cool down at some point. That's why zone has always been effective at lower levels of basketball but never in the pro game -- there just aren't many college teams who have multiple guys who shoot well enough to consistently knock down even open shots.

As for Syracuse, they got the usual solid performances from Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine and a larger than usual contribution from Brandon Triche on the offensive end, but the standout was C.J. Fair, who led the team with 15 points, made multiple steals on the interior of the zone, and grabbed a huge rebound late. I also thought Baye Keita's contribution in the absence of Fab Melo was significantly greater than his modest stat line (four points, five boards, one block) indicates.

As for the regional finals, Syracuse-Ohio State is a Final Four-caliber matchup. The Buckeyes are really good defensively, but as I've said before, Syracuse is such a difficult team to play man-to-man against. A key matchup is going to be Jardine vs. Aaron Craft, who was simply outstanding defensively in the second half against Cincinnati after being burned a couple of times early in the first. Jardine can be a little loose with the ball, which you can't do against Craft, who is a real ballhawk with quick hands. And the old Jardine, at least, showed a tendency throughout his career to take matters into his own hands too much, particularly to make up for an error. The new Jardine has been much more responsible with his decision-making this year, and he'll need to keep it up against OSU for Syracuse to win. My pick is the Buckeyes; they have the combination of shooters and interior players to beat that 2-3 zone, and they are awfully good defensively themselves.

On the other side, to me, it's a total tossup. I don't really know how either of Louisville and Florida is still alive in this tournament. I am a believer in Beal, but I'm still not convinced that Florida's guards can continue to thrive in an up-tempo game against pressure defensive teams. On the other hand, there's really no guarantee that Louisville scores enough to win the game. My pick is Louisville, mainly because their road thus far has been tougher and they've therefore been marginally more impressive to me. But it wouldn't surprise me to see the Gators advancing to St. Louis, either.

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